Among the many deplorable consequences of European elites’ failure to resolve their ongoing migrant crisis is the upsurge of nasty right-wing nationalism across the Continent. Politico reports that the nationalist backlash has been particularly acute in the Czech Republic:
The Czech Republic, a country that regards itself as intrinsically democratic and tolerant, is in the grips of a strong wave of anti-refugee and anti-Islamic hysteria. Motivated by fear of the unknown and fanned by openly racist media, the darkening mood has encouraged surprisingly extreme discourse on social networks like Facebook.
A certain amount of fear is perhaps understandable. After the deportation of a large German minority from Czechoslovakia in 1945 and after 40 years of communism, Central European countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary are highly homogeneous and predominantly white. Historically, the Czechs and the Slovaks defined their nationality in terms of language, meaning that if you did not speak Czech or Slovak you were an alien, not to be accepted or trusted.
Xenophobia and racism tend to be strongest where people have never met foreigners or persons of another skin color. But the intensity of the venom directed at immigrants — of whom there are very few in the Czech Republic — in public discourse is staggering.
There are ugly sentiments expressed in the article, but it’s important to do more than simply tsk tsk. The drive by Europe’s ethnic groups to set up states of their own where their particular cultural values and language could be both celebrated and protected is one of the great driving forces of modern European history. Nationalism was stronger than religion and ideology in modern Europe. It was also, for more than one hundred years, one of the chief building blocks of progressive social thought. The idea that each people should have the right to self determination, and that the rich members of a national community had a duty of solidarity towards the poorer members, helped bring both democratic politics and the welfare state to modern Europe. Without the power of nationalism—that sense of a ‘we’ that creates a political body—it is unlikely that either of these two ideas would have taken hold.
Nationalism is not unproblematic; German history tells us all we need to know on that score. And it is clear that the peace of Europe in the 21st century requires some kind of multinational form of political organization. But when European (or American for that matter) technocrats ignore the importance and validity of the social bonds, and miss the importance of the coherence that national identity gives to political institutions, then equally destructive problems can arise. Soviet history should show us what can happen when technocrats obsessed with ideological designs seek to remake societies without respect for the cultural and social values and traditions that have helped those societies cohere.
Today, in both Europe and the United States, the technocrats and the cosmopolitans have leaned too far ahead over their skis. One of the consequences is the revival of the ugly side of nationalist politics. The answer isn’t to crush the nationalists and the traditionalists with ever more rigid policies of cosmopolitan integration and massive doses of immigration beyond what the body politic is ready for. That is not a way to fight ugly proto-fascist nationalist revivals; it is a way to stoke and empower them.